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Taking aim at Albany’s sleaziness

It looks as if Dennis Gabryszak’s purportedly sleazy suggestions to young female staffers, unwelcome sharing of tasteless pictures and eminently rejectable hot-tub invitations have paid off in a way he never imagined.

The 62-year-old retired-in-disgrace assemblyman from Cheektowaga didn’t leave much of a legacy. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s idea for an abuse/harassment hotline for state workers is clearly the bloom sprung from the fertilizer that Gabryszak – and a bunch of similar slimeballs – have long spread around the state capital.

It’s not how public policy is supposed to be crafted. But this is Albany, where there is sometimes a low road to high-minded changes.

Cuomo’s budget plan includes a hotline for sexual-harassment victims – run not through the wolf pack of boundary-lite legislators, but by the Commission on Public Ethics. It’s a long-overdue gut punch to Albany’s hands-on, wink-nod, frat boy culture. At last, starry-eyed young staffers have somewhere to turn when their idealism is pawed or innuendoed out of them by sleazeball bosses.

Given Albany’s endless litany of scandal, I suspect Cuomo will need not just a hotline, but a call center.

Dragging Albany into the 21st century isn’t easy. The Stand-Up Seven – the current or former female staffers who complained about Gabryszak – can claim a share of credit. They also share in a communal sigh of relief.

Caitrin Kennedy, 24, came to Albany in September eager to apply what she learned as a poli sci major at DePaul University. As Gabryszak’s director of community relations, she said, she got a different sort of education. As her boss’ behavior devolved from sleazy remarks to hot-tub invitations, she did not know whom to trust or where to turn.

“Do I speak up – and how can I do it without being fired? That was a huge part of it for Cait,” said Diana Cihak. “If she quit, how do you explain to people why you left, and then why you didn’t do something about it?”

Cihak is close friends with Kennedy, who isn’t speaking publicly until legal issues play out. A former county legislative staffer, Cihak understands Albany’s caveman culture. Until Cuomo’s hotline idea, the go-to person for victimized staffers was an Assembly-hired lawyer. That’s the same Assembly led by Speaker Shelley Silver, fresh off a scandal involving public hush money paid to settle harassment complaints against ex-member Vito Lopez.

Somehow, I don’t think the “harassment lawyer” fielded many calls.

“I know Cait wouldn’t have called that lawyer,” Cihak told me.

Enter the hotline.

“Cait said yes, she would have called it, if it had been available,” Cihak confirmed.

I think Cuomo should take it another step, with mandatory reporting by state workers of harassment. Gabryszak’s bad reputation was apparently an open secret in political circles. The culture of “see something, say something” should extend not just to victims, but to staffers and legislators who know what’s happening. The “boys will be boys” baloney survives only as long as other men buy into it. President Obama and Vice President Biden this week called on male college students to condemn date rape and other abuse. The same zero tolerance ought to apply to the Albany frat house.

If it did, a legion of Cait Kennedys might not have lost their idealism – or worse.